Perception isn’t reality, but that doesn’t mean perception isn’t important. By which I mean, reputation matters.
I go back and forth on this question: As a priest, how concerned should I be about my personal reputation?
You might be surprised to learn that every single priest has detractors. There’s no avoiding it. For instance, if you were to search for online reviews of my parish, you’d find the majority of them are accurate, polite, and positive. A few, however, personally attack the priest, mentioning how terrible I am. Literally every other parish has similar reviews, mostly thoughtful but always somewhere in there, a few rash attacks on the reputation of the pastor. These opinions may or may not be based on fact.
This, of course, bothers me. On one hand, it isn’t that big a deal, cannot be avoided, and in the end, those who really know me don’t pay any attention to such things. So in that sense, these attacks aren’t particularly important. Most people are generous and forgiving, understanding that no one is perfect, and our parish hasn’t been hampered in any way – our attendance is steadily rising, we have tons of happy families, and people come every day to the church to pray.
On the other hand, I do worry about the fact that, if even one person is discouraged by negativity from attending a church, that’s a problem. Or if even one person gets the wrong general idea about the men who have given their lives to the priesthood and it sours their faith, or makes young men hesitant to explore a vocation, that’s also a problem.
How is it possible to defend a reputation and at the same time remain humble? Does a truly humble person simply let it all go? Is it arrogant to speak up for yourself?
Priests certainly aren’t the only ones who deal with this problem. It shows up in all sorts of different contexts such as interpersonal relationships and with colleagues at work. We all have reputations to protect, and sometimes, such as at work, it’s vitally important to do so.
In fact, this is such a universal concern that in his book Introduction to the Devout Life St. Francis de Sales has a whole chapter dedicated to it, titled, “How to combine due care for a Good Reputation with Humility.” He makes some observations I have found helpful…
First, he points out that, while humility dictates that we don’t intentionally seek praise and honor, it doesn’t forbid us from keeping a good name.
A good reputation, if you think about it, isn’t praise for a particular talent, but it does mean that you’re recognized as possessing integrity of character. These are the sort of people we admire, the sort of people we all want to be – honest, steady, thoughtful, and possessing good character.
Francis says it’s actually a vice to not care about reputation:
Humility might make us indifferent even to a good reputation … but seeing that it is a groundwork of society, and without it we are not merely useless but positively harmful to the world, because of the scandal given by such a deficiency, therefore charity requires, and humility allows, us to desire and to maintain a good reputation with care.
In other words, be keen to maintain a good reputation because doing so benefits the reputation of the Church, your employer, your family, or your friend group. If people slander the reputation of a priest, for instance, they’re also harming the Church.
Second, Francis points out the personal benefit of a good reputation – living up to it.
Possessing a good name creates a desire to actually deserve it. The better your reputation, the more conscientious you’ll be about living with integrity.
Francis also helpfully notes that defending a reputation doesn’t mean arguing with people or being overly-sensitive.
Those who are so very fastidious over their good name are apt to lose it entirely, for they become fanciful, fretful, and disagreeable, provoking ill-natured remarks.
You don’t have to challenge every gossiper to a duel with pistols at break of dawn. The best defense of a good reputation, says Francis, is to ignore gossip and let your good character do the speaking. Then, if you must, speak up.
Finally, Francis points out one specific situation in which we shouldn’t worry at all …
If you are blamed or slandered for pious practices, earnestness in devotion, or whatever tends to win eternal life, then let your slanderers have their way, like dogs that bay at the moon!
When we are looked down upon for behaving virtuously, there’s no concern in allowing people who would speak negatively about it to continue doing so. They do so to their own shame. God can defend His own reputation — and yours.
What I’ve come to realize over the years is that not everybody likes me, and that’s okay. My responsibility is to become the sort of person who is easier to like. After that, it’s in God’s hands. If my reputation suffers in a way that harms my priestly ministry, then I can be more active about defending it, but beyond that, as St. Francis indicates, our time is better spent in living happy, virtuous lives. A good name is sure to follow.